The Reality of Storm Chasing
by Jim Bishop (2010)

With no active chase setups to talk about, I thought it would be interesting to discuss the steps chasers must take days or even weeks in advance of storm chasing setups, and what it takes to actually chase storms. Some readers are active storm chasers, some are new to the chasing community, but most probably are not familiar with everything that’s actually involved in preparing for a day of storm chasing much less actually storm chasing. So without getting too in depth, let’s take a look at the most important things involved.

Probably the most obvious thing to be aware of is the weather pattern. After all, if you don’t have a clue when a severe weather setup might occur, how could you possibly be prepared when one pops up? Most storm chasing setups occur within a three or four month window, from the early/mid spring on into the early summer (mid/late March through early July) across the Great Plains of the U.S. So storm chasers are on high alert – so to speak – during that time of year.

Now that chasers know the general time of year to be looking for chase setups, they need to have a week or a few days notice on upcoming chase events. For that reason most chasers can forecast the weather to some extent. After all, the ability to forecast truly is the most important aspect of storm chasing. Unfortunately weather forecasting, especially tornado forecasting, is extremely difficult and requires a great deal of knowledge of atmospheric science, or meteorology. Even professional meteorologists have difficulty forecasting tornadoes days and sometimes even hours in advance. So for a storm chaser who is not trained in the field of meteorology, forecasting when and where a decent chase setup will occur proves to be quite challenging.

Some of the most experienced storm chasers are either meteorologists who chase as a hobby or for research purposes. Some have been storm chasing for so long they have become self taught weather forecasters , so to speak. Whatever the case, if you are a storm chaser looking for chase setups in the spring, you monitor computer models daily. Unfortunately these models can be quite unreliable as little as three to four days into the future. That’s when the knowledge and expertise of a degreed meteorologist comes in handy. These storm chasers can make their own chase forecasts and therefore are going to have far more success intercepting tornadoes than other chasers who lack forecasting expertise.

Now we’ve established that storm chasers have to be able to monitor the weather pattern themselves, monitoring computer models and interpreting things accordingly. From this monitoring ,as well as consulting forecasts provided by the Storm Prediction Center, storm chasers have a general idea of where tornadoes might form a few days in advance. The next step is all about location and driving. Chase setups can occur anywhere from Texas to the Dakotas into parts of the Midwest. Even though the Storm Prediction Center’s forecast and the computer models will give chasers a general location for where tornadoes are possible, the forecasts and computer models are fraught with error. The chasers must plan to be in a certain location in the morning or by midday so they are prepared if they need to drive much further than expected to intercept storms.

This preparation isn’t as easy as it may seem at first glance. Many times chasers are forced to leave their home (or hotel room) late at night, driving a great distance into the first part of the following day just to be in position for the day’s chase. Most of the time sleeping is a low priority and sleep deprivation is inevitable. It’s always a good idea to carry energy drinks and quick sources of protein and vitamins. Eating is never a priority when you are forced to drive all through the night and day to make it in time for storm initiation that afternoon. In that case, drive-through fast food becomes your meal source–so keep your vehicle stocked with quick options.

The next issue regarding preparation is access to weather data. Once you are on the road, you need to have access to the latest computer models, satellite/radar images as well as surface and upper air charts. Without access to this kind of information, a chaser will continue driving to his/her target region without knowing that an important factor in the forecast has changed. Now the chaser could be driving away from the best area for tornadoes without knowing it. Basically, access to constantly updated weather data is essential on a storm chase.

With today’s technology, getting access to weather data while on the road is getting easier and more efficient. Most chasers can download radar images on their phones while in the car. An increasingly large amount of people have internet access on their laptops enroute as well. In today’s chasing world, data is streaming constantly and this proves to be very helpful in intercepting tornadoes once tornadic storms have formed. But this data is only useful if the chaser is already in the general area where tornadoes will occur. And once again the ability to be in the general region where tornadoes will form consistently, chase after chase, requires a high level of forecasting skill and experience. Even the best chaser will experience a ‘bust’…even the most seasoned and apt meteorologist.

A chaser also needs to have detailed maps. Personally I prefer topographic state maps simply because they are easy to use and provide even the smallest roads in a state. But again, in today’s technologically advanced chasing world most chasers use GPS on their laptop or have GPS installed in their car. I say to each their own, but a paper map will never malfunction.

Camera equipment including a still SLR camera, a high definition video camera, tripod, laptop, cell phone, car charger and batteries are usually required on a storm chase. Some chasers also have ham radios and other communication devises requiring tons of antennas to be attached to the side or roof of their vehicle. But that’s unnecessary and all you really need is a standard radio and maybe a hand held weather radio. The rest will cause your vehicle to receive much more attention than normal and might attract law enforcement. Be wary and cognizant of local law enforcement and uphold speed limits– being stopped by a police officer will take valuable minutes away from your chasing process.

You need to plan ahead financially for stormchasing– it all adds up fast. Gas money, food, and unexpected car repair are just a few of the many expenses that will pop up during your journey. For those who chase with a partner or in groups this isn’t a big problem. But for those who chase solo this is a significant financial requirement. In a typical chase season storm chasers can drive thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of miles within a month or two period. So having the funds to pay for gas is crucial and in the past has caused some storm chasers to sit out on low-risk tornado days. Being low on money towards the end of a chase season has caused chasers to miss tornadoes even when they are actively looking for chase setups.

Understand that you need to be able to endure lots and lots of pain, stress, boredom, sleep deprivation, and disappointment. With all the money, preparation, time and work involved with storm chasing it doesn’t usually result in seeing a big tornado up close. Most of the time you don’t see anything, or at best you catch a nice sunset. Sometimes not a single storm develops and sometimes too many storms form and no tornadoes occur. All chasers have been in a situation where they follow a storm with a tornado warning that actually never produces a tornado, yet the storm fifty miles to the south does produce. Storm chasing is extremely frustrating and taxing on you and your car, and if you don’t have a strong desire to see an amazing supercell thunderstorm and possibly a tornado, then you probably are not willing to go through all the stress and pain of storm chasing. However, all of this planning and exhaustion is worth it upon experiencing the raw power and beauty of a tornado.